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The Founding of the Dedham Church

From Our Covenant: The 2000-01 Minns Lectures, The Lay and Liberal Doctrine of the Church: The Spirit and the Promise of Our Covenant, by Alice Blair Wesley (Chicago: Meadville-Lombard Press, 2002). Used with permission.

Religiously, Unitarians are directly descended from the Puritans and Pilgrims who settled Massachusetts beginning in 1620. Although those colonists perceived themselves to be settling a wilderness, they were actually displacing the Wampanoag, Pequot, Narragansett, and Mohegan tribes that lived in that area. Colonists gave little thought to accommodating these people, believing that they had a superior style of living and religion. Tensions and violent confrontations arose between the colonists and the native peoples as a result of the increasing number and size of colonial settlements on native lands and from efforts to convert Indian people to Christianity.

When they arrived from England to settle, colonists duplicated the arrangement of English towns, building their houses close together with fields surrounding the town. Generally, the colonists who settled a particular town came from the same place in England and knew one another. By contrast, the settlers of Dedham came from different places in England and were unacquainted. This is the story of how they came to form a church and a town.

By 1637, about 30 English families were newly settled in Dedham. They were not acquainted with one another prior to the founding of Dedham because they had come to New England on different ships from different parts of England and had lived for a while in different towns. They had come to Dedham to form a new township with the permission of the General Court of Massachusetts.

To settle this parcel of American land, they first had to design a town government, so they could legally allot fields for growing crops and smaller, town lots for building houses. After they had built pens for their animals, planted initial crops, built houses, unpacked or pegged together furniture and so on, they began to think of founding a church. But they had been working so hard they really hadn't had time to get to know one another very well. In other words, except for the fact that many of them—though not all—were farmers, these people were something like present day suburbanites, almost all of whom may have moved quite recently to where they now live. Certainly, if suburbanites of today think they might want to start a new Unitarian Universalist church, they will have to start by talking with strangers, maybe much like themselves religiously, maybe not, but who certainly do not know each other in any depth.So, guess what these New Englanders did in 1637 to get to know each other and to approach—gently, slowly—some very profound and personal religious issues? They set up a series of weekly neighborhood meetings, "lovingly to discourse and consult together... and prepare for spiritual communion in a church society, *** [gap in the record] that we might be further acquainted with the (spiritual) tempers and guifts of one an other [sic]." Meetings were held every Thursday "at several houses in order," in rotation. Anybody in town who wanted was welcome to attend.

...The account in the Dedham Church record lists the questions the people in 1637—not yet a church—discussed at their weekly meetings, which continued for a whole year. Several features of this event are intriguing. For example, we all know the New England colonists were a "people of the Book," the Bible. But they did not begin to talk about a church by talking about the Bible. By way of laying a basis for discussion of the church, they began by addressing a question of common sense or natural law. I quote, "For the subject of thes disputes or conference divers meetings att first were spent about questions as pertained to the just peaceable & comfortable proceeding in the civill society... [sic]"

In a word, a foundational concern of a free church is for the justice, the peace, the laws and regulations—the conditions of—any healthy, free society. Here in the wilderness these people, having just come from the anguish of European society in the 1600s, knew there could be no peaceably functioning free church—in the long term—if it was not set within a larger society wherein concerns for justice, peace and reasonable laws can be freely and effectively voiced, without suppression... 

.... After much general talk about "civill society," they began to edge toward talk about a church. Their first question on this subject was: Here we are, not presently members of any church. We don't know each other well, religiously. Are we qualified to "assemble together... [and] confer" like this? Their answer: We are, if, "in the judgement of charity," we seem to be and think we are acting out of (in our terms) genuinely deep, religious love... 

Next question: Well, if we can meet like this, just as neighbors, isn't this enough? Maybe we don't need a church. Their answer: No, this is too casual. If we really want to live in the ways of our deepest love, then we must intentionally form a much deeper community of love... And besides, others in the larger society need the example of love which a free church will publicly show forth... My point is that they understood the role of the church as filling needs of both the members and the larger community...

These laypeople's central conclusion, from all these weeks of discussion, was this: Members of their new free church should be joined in a covenant of religious loyalty to the spirit of love. And once members were joined in a covenant, of their own writing and signing, the members' loyalty in the church should be only to the spirit of love, working in their own hearts and minds. No one—not the Governor, nor the General Court, not even members of other similarly covenanted churches—would have any authority in the local free church. They were not sectarian loners... They thought they should and they did seek counsel from neighboring churches. Yet they were very careful to make sure everybody understood that they would seek and consider counsel from others often, but accept rulings or commands contrary to their own experience of the spirit—never.

...Then and now and for as long as human history lasts... the integrity of the free church comes down to our loyalty to the spirit of love at work in the hearts and minds of the local members. The laypeople who founded First Church, Dedham knew so and clearly said so, and that is why we still say together, so often in our churches now, "Love is the doctrine of this church..."

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Last updated on Friday, December 9, 2011.

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